How conservatives (wrongly) detect liberal bias in the news

By Christopher B. Daly

Today’s NYTimes provides a clear-cut example of how conservatives often mis-read or mis-hear the news and jump to the wrong conclusion. Most of the time, conservatives are sure they are seeing a political bias when, in fact, what they are seeing are professional values.

Here’s the story:

The Times ran a story under the headline: ‘No One Believes Anything’: Voters Worn Out by a Fog of Political News. The implication was that there is too much news about impeachment.

As the story unfolds, the Times reporters quote a computer programmer in Idaho named Russell Memory.

But he said he sees bias among liberal news outlets and that drives him crazy too. He was annoyed, for example, that stories of Mr. Trump being booed at the Washington Nationals baseball game were given top billing, but when Mr. Trump was cheered in Alabama a few days later, he could find almost nothing about it.

“I don’t think things are fake, they’re just one-sided,” said Mr. Memory, 37. “Both things happened. He got booed and he got cheered. But one of them will be a much bigger story. That’s what bothers me.”

This is a classic example of confusion.

The fact that a sitting president got booed while attending a World Series game in the District of Columbia was unusual. That is, it was statistically rare. Therefore, it was news. Any journalist would agree.

Trump at the Nationals game.

As for Alabama, the fact that a Republican president went to a bright-red state for a football game and was cheered is entirely to be expected. It is not unusual. Therefore, it is not news. Any journalist would agree.

Trump at the Alabama game.

Of course, ideologues on talk shows could be expected to jump on either case as ammunition for their side. That’s not news either.

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Election 2020: Cover Trump’s campaign manager

By Christopher B. Daly

Memo to the national political press corps:

Who is Brad Parscale?

If you are a member of the national press corps covering the 2020 election, chances are you know who he is. If not, the chances are pretty much nil.

Brad Parscale is Donald Trump’s campaign manager. He should be covered every day, because he is almost certainly up to something every day. But most voters do not know what he’s up to, and chances are that they will never find out — until it’s too late.

Brad Parscale, the campaign manager for the Trump campaign, arrives at the Trump Tower in New York on November 17, 2016.
EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

One thing Brad Parscale has been up to recently is waging a campaign to get the states to shut down their Republican primaries, so Donald Trump will not have to face any challengers. Instead, Parscale wants to spare Trump the expense of mounting a primary campaign and spare Trump the need to defend his policies against actual conservative critics.

Voters could be excused for not knowing that Trump is opposed in his own party by at least three candidates: former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, and former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh. They recently co-wrote an oped that ran in the Washington Post complaining that Trump’s high-handedness was depriving Republican voters of choice.

“In the Trump era, personal responsibility, fiscal sanity and rule of law have been overtaken by a preference for alienating our allies while embracing terrorists and dictators, attacking the free press and pitting everyday Americans against one another,” they wrote. “No surprise, then, that the latest disgrace, courtesy of Team Trump, is an effort to eliminate any threats to the president’s political power in 2020. Republicans have long held primaries and caucuses to bring out the best our party has to offer. Our political system assumes an incumbent president will make his case in front of voters to prove that he or she deserves to be nominated for a second term.”

This is exactly the kind of thing that the national political press corps should be covering. If you are covering something that Donald Trump wants you to cover (like his hostile threats against Iran), you are probably covering the wrong thing.

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On Reading Walt Whitman

By Christopher B. Daly 

I have been reading American literature for most of my life, but I had never read Walt Whitman’s masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, out loud. Until yesterday.

I took a couple of hours and ran through the whole 1855 version of the great, sprawling poem. Whitman himself said his poem was meant to be read aloud, and I now see why.  So many wonders leap out when the poem is read aloud — strong, varied rhythms; slashing sarcasm; a character/narrator called Walt Whitman passing in and out; a cast of hundreds; poems within poems; a poke-your-ribs sense of humor; a deep respect for the many people in 19th C. America who were neither free nor equal.

I am working on a new book in which Whitman, who worked as a journalist when he was a young man, will feature in the first chapter. As I work on Whitman, I plan to post more of his great, very contemporary work.

For today, I want to highlight one such passage. This is part of the section of Leaves of Grass that would, in later editions, acquire the title “I Sing the Body Electric”:

The man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred 

    .   .   .   .    it is no matter who,

Is it a slave? Is it one of the dullfaced immigrants just landed 

on the wharf?

Each belongs here or anywhere just as much as the welloff

   .   .   .   . just as much as you,

Each has his or her place in the procession.

All is a procession,

The universe is a procession with measured and beautiful motion. 

(Leaves of Grass, Library of America edition, p. 122)

 

whitman-nyc-lead

Walt Whitman, detail from the frontspiece to the 1855 edition. Engraving by Hollyer.

 

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What is democracy?

With a tip of the hat to the estimable Chris Lydon, host of the “Open Source” program on NPR, here is a gem written by E.B. White in the middle of World War II. 

We received a letter from the Writers’ War Board the other day asking for a statement on “The Meaning of Democracy.” It presumably is our duty to comply with such a request, and it is certainly our pleasure.

Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more unnamedthan half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.

— E. B. White,

Notes and Comment, The New Yorker, July, 3, 1943

 

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10 Ways the Media Could Improve Coverage of Trump (but probably won’t)

By Christopher B. Daly

After two years in office, President Trump has proven that he has one great skill: the ability to dominate news coverage. Not only does he generate a torrent of news, he has become a great manipulator of public opinion – distracting us, distorting facts, distributing conspiracy theories, and flat-out dissembling.

That approach to news-making presents novel challenges to the press corps. Those journalists who operate in good faith and take an empirical approach to the job should maxresdefaultbe proud of their important work. But to make sure that journalism is not misunderstood or undermined by others, these times call for high standards and new approaches. Clearly, Trump cannot be counted on to elevate the discourse, so it will be up to members of the news media to impose discipline, standards, and new protocols.

At the start of a new year, it is a good time to consolidate some of the lessons learned since Trump took office. Based on my decades as a reporter and on my research into the history of American journalism, I believe the following changes would begin to address the president’s rampage through the norms of journalism:

 

  1. NEVER, NEVER BROADCAST HIM LIVE. It is almost certain that he will say something false, knowingly false, kooky, plain wrong, insulting, or inscrutable. By carrying him live, journalists lose the chance to DO THEIR JOB – which is to fact-check, verify, provide context and background, seek out other points of view, etc. He has squandered the right to use mass media. He should always be on a delay, allowing a minimum of time to check his assertions, prepare a corrective chyron, or mute a flat-out falsehood.
  2. DON’T ALLOW TRUMP TO SERVE AS YOUR ONLY SOURCE. If the president tweets something, that might be news. But there is no journalistic reason to just pick up his tweet and run with it. We are not here to storify Trump’s tweets. Yes, his words can be parts of stories, but they cannot be the main or only source of information. “The President Tweeted Something” is not a headline anyone needs.
  3. DON’T SINK TO HIS LEVEL. You know what I mean.
  4. COVER HIS ACTIONS MORE THAN HIS WORDS. That is, cover everything he does, but do not cover everything he says. Cover his administration, not his person. There are dozens of appointments, actions, policy decisions, executive orders, and the like that make up the reality of a presidential administration.
  5. DIVIDE THE LABOR. Let the AP cover the few remaining, sporadic White House briefings. Under Sarah Huckabee Sanders they are practically useless anyway. And never broadcast or stream her live either. (See #1)
  6. STICK TO FACTS. Never exaggerate, and double-check every detail. In reporting on Trump, the error rate must be zero, because any mistakes will be used against the news media. Critics will assume that errors were made in bad faith, not in good faith. So, mistakes will be cited as “evidence” of a political agenda.
  7. FOLLOW UP. Trump generates so many promises and threats that it is nearly impossible to keep up, but it’s important to try. At his rallies, in his Twitter feed, and in his off-the-cuff remarks, the president leaves behind a trail of items that cry out for follow-up. Keep score.
  8. SPREAD OUT. Get out of the White House and report on what’s going on in departments, agencies, and lobbying firms. Trump takes up so much bandwidth that it’s easy to miss the shenanigans going on deep inside his administration.
  9. COVER THE FALLOUT. The policies of Trump and his appointees in Washington have impacts far from D.C. Travel around and see what the elimination of regulations is doing to our streams and forests. Find out how the rank and file soldiers and sailors really feel about this commander in chief. Ask people in other countries how the U.S. is affecting them. Get out of Washington, and report from the ground up.
  10. OWN YOUR AUDIENCE. Now more than ever, it’s important to connect to your audience. Show your readers and viewers how you are looking out for them – whether it’s by covering waste, fraud, and abuse in Trump’s world or by examining how his policies are affecting working families. Be the voice of the people – and let the people know it.

Throughout our history, journalists have faced many challenges. Now it is the turn of the admirable men and women who deliver the real news to carry on the great tradition of reporting on the sayings and doings of the powerful.

Pulitzer, Joseph - Verleger, Ungarn/ USA/ undatiertAs Joseph Pulitzer, a great publisher and editor who did battle with presidents in his day, defined the stakes in this challenge: “Our republic and its press will rise or fall together.”

 

 

Chris Daly, a former reporter with the AP and the Washington Post, teaches journalism and history at Boston University. He is the author of “The Journalist’s Companion” and “Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism.” 

 

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NYTimes is Thriving (not failing!)

By Christopher B. Daly 

Contrary to what President Trump says, the New York Times is thriving — not just in terms of its original, fact-based reporting but the company (and just as importantly)  is also thriving in terms of its business. The Times is growing and profitable. The Times has found enough digital subscribers to carry it far into the future.

The Times, which may be the country’s most im-images

portant journalistic institution, is enjoying a “virtuous circle” of professional and business success in which each type of success reinforces the other.

Great reporting –> more readers –> more subscriptions –> more money –> more great reporting –> 

How do we know this? From the sworn, audited statements that the NYTCo is obligated, by law, to divulge to stockholders and other investors every quarter. Let’s look at some highlights from the company’s latest quarterly report:

–The paper set a record of more than 4 million total subscribers worldwide. They are in every country and continent (including Antarctica!).

–That number includes a more important record: more than 3 million subscribers who pay for a digital-only subscription. This is important because those people are probably going to be around a lot longer than then 1 million or so subscribers to the print edition. Not only that, but the digital-only subscribers are customers who can be reached by the Times virtually for free. To reach them, the newspaper does not have to buy newsprint, operate giant printing presses, and pay for fleets of delivery trucks.

–The growth in digital subscriptions is accelerating. The paper reported a net increase in the most recent quarter of more than 200,000 — the best quarter since the “Trump bump” in the period right after the 2016 election.

–Digital revenue (the money the paper gets from all those digital subscriptions) is also rising. In the last nine months, it topped $450 million — or over $600 million a year, which is probably plenty of money to operate the Times newsroom indefinitely.

Profits are up. Operating profits rose 30 percent in the last quarter to reach $41.4 million — or, well over $160 million a year.

–The stock price is up.

snap_chart_buffer

NYT stock price 

Since Trump was elected in late 2016, the value of a share of Class A NYTCo stock has more than doubled.

At the Times, the business desk buries these stories, and the editors absolutely refuse to celebrate their good news or do anything resembling spiking the football in the end zone. But any way you look at it, the New York Times is not failing.

 

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A RECENT ATTACK ON JOURNALISM EDUCATION WAS WRONG AND HARMFUL. HERE’S ANOTHER VIEW

By Christopher B. Daly

Journalism Professor,

Boston University

 

In its spring/summer issue for 2018, the Columbia Journalism Review ran an odd attack on, of all things, journalism education. It was written by Felix Salmon, a journalist whose work I admire. But in this case, almost every sentence he wrote was outdated, tendentious, or flat-out wrong.

Here’s his piece in regular text and my comments in all caps bold.

By Felix Salmon

When it comes to journalism school, there are two questions. The first is the tough one, and was asked and answered by Michael Lewis in a blistering (and very funny) takedown in The New Republic in 1993: Is it all bullshit? The answer then was a clear yes.

THIS SEEMS GLIB, ESPECIALLY COMING FROM SOMEONE WHO NEVER WENT TO ONE.

 In the 25 years since Lewis wrote his article, the occupation of journalism has become more precarious than ever: Joseph Pulitzer’s plan to “raise journalism to the rank of a learned profession” rings hollow in an age of Chartbeat, post quotas, and pay-per-pageview. If you meet a theologian today, or a lawyer, or a doctor, it’s reasonable to assume they have studied deeply and learned a lot in order to do their job. That’s not the case with journalism, nor should it be;

ARE YOU MAKING THE CASE FOR IGNORANCE HERE?

even J-school’s staunchest defenders don’t consider a journalism degree to be a necessary prerequisite for anybody entering the field. 

GRANTED, A DEGREE IS NEITHER NECESSARY NOR SUFFICIENT. BUT THAT DOES NOT MEAN THEY ARE ALL WORTHLESS FOR ALL PEOPLE. FOR SOME STUDENTS, THEY ARE A LIFELINE.

 Thus have the contours of the debate stood for at least a quarter century. ACTUALLY, THIS DEBATE HIS NOT CHANGED MUCH SINCE 1904. AS I WRITE IN MY BOOK “COVERING AMERICA,” JOSEPH PULITZER AND HORACE WHITE DEBATED WHETHER A NEWS REPORTER EVEN NEEDED TO ATTEND COLLEGE. (WHITE SAID NO, PULITZER YES)

Copy Desk, Columbia J-School

Students at the Columbia Journalism School work at the “copy desk.”

On one side, we find people who think a journalism degree can be a useful way to learn skills that come in handy while editing and reporting; on the other, more perspicacious types look around, see that many of the greatest journalists have no such degree, and can find no evidence that a J-school education correlates in any way with better work.

THE FACT THAT “MANY OF THE GREATEST JOURNALISTS” OF THE PAST – OR EVEN OF THE PRESENT – DID NOT GET JOURNALISM DEGREES HAS NO BEARING ON WHETHER CURRENT STUDENTS WILL NEED THOSE DEGREES IN THE FUTURE. THINGS CHANGE.

IN MY OWN CASE, I STUDIED HISTORY IN COLLEGE IN THE 1970S AND WORKED ON THE COLLEGE PAPER. I GOT SUMMER JOBS AT SUBURBAN NEWSPAPERS, WHERE I WAS PAID. (AND PAID THE UNION WAGE, TOO!)

Perhaps it is worth asking a more pointed question: Should J-school even exist?

For anybody on Lewis’s side of the original question, the answer is easy. If J-school is indeed bullshit, if it adds no value to the world, if it has signally failed in more than a century of existence to raise journalism to the rank of a learned profession

JOURNALISM IS QUITE A BIT CLOSER TO A LEARNED PROFESSION THAN IT WAS A CENTURY AGO —well, then, it has no real ability to justify its existence, and the world would be better off without it. But the fact is that everybody should concede that the world would be better off without J-school, no matter how noble they consider Pulitzer’s original undertaking.

Indeed, the more useful J-school is, the more urgent and important its abolition becomes. A useless J-school is a waste of time and money for those who go there, offset by the benefit that accrues to teachers and other recipients of the students’ tuition. The net effect is negative, but the only people suffering real harm are the students. What’s more, it’s easy to avoid that harm: Don’t go to J-school. But what if the J-school defenders are right? What if J-school students really do end up with a significant advantage over those who don’t share their credentials? In that case, even more people are harmed. 

HUH?

J-school attendees might get a benefit from their journalism degree, but it comes at an eye-watering cost. The price tag of the Columbia Journalism School, for instance, is $105,820 for a 10-month program, $147,418 for a 12-month program, or $108,464 per year for a two-year program. That’s a $216,928 graduate degree, on top of all the costs associated with gaining the undergraduate prerequisites. (Columbia, it seems important to say, is also the publisher of Columbia Journalism Review, the publication you’re now reading.)

IMPORTANT TO NOTE: MOST SCHOOLS COST LESS, AND NEARLY ALL REDUCE THAT “STICKER PRICE” WITH SCHOLARSHIPS. SO, THIS IS AN ALARMIST FIGURE. TUITION IS STILL TOO HIGH, GRANTED. BUT IT IS NOT THAT HIGH.

 There are also substantial opportunity costs. Once you’ve graduated from a four-year college, you’re eminently employable, and can enter the workforce immediately. If you delay your career by another year or two, you lose out on a significant amount of income as well as valuable professional experience. Even if you start working in journalism at minimum wage, after a year or two you’re still going to be richer, more experienced, more employable, and almost certainly more skilled than someone who’s spent that time getting a grad-school degree.

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE YOUNG PERSON WHO GRADUATED WITH A DEGREE IN ENGLISH? THE WORLD IS HARDLY WAITING FOR THEM. MANY OF THEM TAKE STOCK IN THEIR LATE 20S AND DECIDE TO GET A MORE-PROFESSIONAL DEGREE, LIKE JOURNALISM. WE KICK-START MANY CAREERS FOR YOUNG PEOPLE WHO WERE WAITING TABLES.

But what about the people who choose not to go to J-school? Here’s their problem: When you’re looking for that entry-level foot in the door, you’re going to be competing against applicants a year or two older than you who have just spent six figures getting themselves a Columbia degree. And if that credential is worth even marginally more than nothing, those candidates are going to be more attractive to employers, and more likely to get the job. 

The result is a crowding-out effect, whereby job-hunting J-school graduates, having already caused themselves substantial financial harm, then go on to harm any aspiring journalistic employee who was smart enough not go to J-school. 

What does that mean in practice? It means a much less diverse workforce, at a time when newsroom diversity has perhaps never been more important. If you’re poor, or working-class, or a rural person of color, or mobility-constrained, or a single mother struggling to bring up multiple children, or otherwise part of a group that has historically been underrepresented in newsrooms, is it possible for you to go to J-school? Sure. Is it likely? Not in the slightest. VALID POINT. THE WORST FEATURE ABOUT ALL OF AMERICAN HIGHER ED, NOT JUST JOURNALISM, IS THAT IT IS TOO EXPENSIVE.

Is it advisable? It is not. INVALID POINT. IF YOU WANTED TO GO AND YOU COULD GO, YOU DEFINITELY SHOULD.

Yet you’re exactly the kind of person news organizations should be spending more effort bringing into their ranks. Carl Bernstein never went to college; ANCIENT HISTORY

the journalistic profession needs more of his ilk, not fewer.

The best and simplest way to move toward that goal would be to abolish the graduate journalism degree entirely. That would help to level the playing field, while saving students billions of dollars in tuition. Better yet, it would bring the industry back to a model of on-the-job training. People wanting to enter the profession would get paid to learn the ropes.

BY WHOM??? I BENEFITED FROM THAT KIND OF ON-THE-JOB TRAINING, BUT THAT WAS 45 YEARS AGO! THE SMALL AND MEDIUM-SIZED PAPERS THAT USED TO OFFER THOSE KINDS OF JOBS ARE THE LEAST LIKELY AND LEAST ABLE TO OFFER THEM TODAY. NOT ONLY THAT, BUT OUR STUDENTS ARE OFTEN FILLING THE GAPS IN THOSE HOLLOWED-OUT LOCAL PAPERS. MOST J-SCHOOLS COMBINE CLASSROOM LEARNING WITH REAL-WORLD EXPERIENCE.

 It’s more effective, it’s infinitely more real, and it focuses the mind: No one’s going to fire you from J-school if you misspell the mayor’s name in a headline. 

Rather than putting money and effort into expensive trainee programs, news organizations no doubt will attempt to outsource their training to journalism schools, thereby getting someone else (anybody else!) to pay the cost.

THEY DID SO LONG AGO, AND THERE IS NO REASON TO THINK THEY WILL REVERSE THAT DECISION.

 

 It’s a false economy, because a well-run trainee or internship program is not only cheaper than J-school, it’s also vastly more valuable. 

NOT NECESSARILY. I LEARNED A LOT ON THE JOB, BUT I NEVER LEARNED ANYTHING ABOUT THE HISTORY, LAW, OR ETHICS OF OUR FIELD. BESIDES, WHERE ARE YOUNG PEOPLE SUPPOSED TO LEARN SKILLS LIKE ‘DATA JOURNALISM’ OR ‘DATA VISUALIZATION’? NOT FROM GRIZZLED VETERANS, BECAUSE MOST OF THEM DO NOT HAVE THESE SKILLS THEMSELVES. THAT’S WHY OUR STUDENTS ARE IN DEMAND FOR JOBS LIKE “MMJ” AND “MULTIMEDIA PRODUCER” AND “DATA INVESTIGATOR.”

So let’s abolish J-school, or at the very least turn it into a purely academic subject no one can mistake for vocational training. By doing so, we will force the training back into the newsrooms, where it belongs. WISHFUL THINKING.

 THE FACT IS, WE NEED JOURNALISM EDUCATION NOW MORE THAN EVER.

Story outline

 

 

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